Over the last month, I’ve read some wonderful tributes to the late icon, McCoy Tyner. They’ve ranged from fans, fellow musicians (some who worked with him, some who didn’t), critics, scholars and the like. As one of the many fortunate musicians who worked with him, I’d like to give my version of the man I affectionately called “Homes.”
When describing just how much of an impact McCoy Tyner had on modern jazz piano, I thought about starting this tribute with a conversation I had with another icon, Herbie Hancock, in 1994. It was a surreal day. Verve Records was just about to celebrate its 50-year anniversary with an all-star concert and PBS television special at Carnegie Hall. The press for the event was massive. As part of the ramp up, they were sending musicians to TV and radio stations, there was major magazine and newspaper coverage, everything. On this morning, a quartet of Abbey Lincoln, Joe Henderson, Herbie Hancock and myself were about to play on ABC’s Good Morning America. I was sitting in a dressing room with Herbie while just a small handful of crew people came in and out on occasion. I was looking forward to this moment with Herbie in a rarely experienced peaceful, controlled atmosphere. As I tried not to be too much of a pain-in-the-ass fanboy, I asked Herbie some questions about his career and about music in general. As he started telling me some stories of his early days in the Miles Davis Quintet, something hit me – it occurred to me that were no known stories of Herbie and John Coltrane ever crossing paths. I asked Herbie, “Did you ever get to meet or play with Coltrane?” Herbie’s face lit up like a Christmas tree. He obviously was about to tell me a story he didn’t tell too often. He told a story about a time during a Village Vanguard run with Miles where Miles arrived at the club one night and excitedly announced to the band, “Coltrane’s going to sit in with us tomorrow night!” Herbie said the whole band just went crazy, like, “For REAL?!?” Herbie claimed he couldn’t sit still the whole night at the prospect of playing a tune or two with Coltrane. Herbie also said that when he got home from the gig that night, he “….practiced all my McCoy Tyner stuff. I wanted to try to give Coltrane what McCoy gave him.”
Think hard about that. Herbie Hancock practiced “McCoy Tyner stuff.” Was “Herbie Hancock stuff” not amazing enough?
You can look at this a couple of different ways. The most obvious thought that comes to mind is that Herbie Hancock is the ultimate professional. To do what he did was a basic professional courtesy extended to a giant who was going to join as a guest. But there’s this angle: Coltrane was going to sit in with THEM. I’m going to take a guess and say this Vanguard gig was 1964 or ‘65. By then, I believe Herbie had a personal language that was developing just as quickly as McCoy’s. However, Herbie knew that this amazing man, only 16 months his senior, was so developed, that maybe he’d take a deeper look. Unfortunately, Coltrane never came.
What was it about McCoy Tyner?
Alfred McCoy Tyner was born and raised in West Philadelphia. He grew up on May Street, a small street of row homes just off of Fairmount Avenue, in a section we Philadelphians call “The Bottom”. That street was razed in the late 50’s (or early 60’s) as the Westpark Projects were erected in its place.
Philadelphia boasted (and still boasts) one of the most fertile breeding grounds in the history of jazz. Without naming every single legend from Philly, I’ll keep it to just Tyner and his peers – Lee Morgan, Albert “Tootie” Heath, Bobby Timmons, Spanky DeBrest, Steve Davis and Reggie Workman were all born within a few years of each other. Tyner’s “big brother & sister” generation consisted of Philly legends like Benny Golson, Trudy Pitts, Jymie Merritt, Bill Carney (aka “Mr. C”), Jimmy Smith, Jimmy Oliver, Shirley Scott, Hasaan Ibn Ali (aka The Legendary Hasaan), Edgar Bateman, Philly Joe Jones, and a young man who would migrate to Philadelphia as a teenager, John Coltrane. Needless to say, he was surrounded by greatness.
I came to learn about the greatness of McCoy Tyner from someone who was a “big brother” to me, alto saxophonist Robert Landham. Even though I knew McCoy Tyner’s name, I didn’t start to get inside of his music until I met Robert. I had many, many great jazz mentors in Philly, but learning from one of your boys is special. Robert was known for being one of the best and most complete musicians in Philly. When I started hanging with Robert and his younger brother, Byron, I must have been 14 years old. Robert was 21 or 22, Byron 16. I used to go to their house in West Oak Lane and shed with them probably once a week. Robert was heavy into the music of Art Blakey & The Jazz Messengers, Miles Davis, Wayne Shorter, Freddie Hubbard, Woody Shaw, Joe Henderson, Herbie Hancock and McCoy Tyner. Interestingly enough, I didn’t learn words like “substitutions”, “superimpose” and “pentatonic” from any of my teachers at school, I learned them from Robert. We would sit around and listen to records before, during and after jamming and Robert would break down the changes and show me what they were doing, as Byron would copy Jack DeJohnette’s or Elvin Jones’s licks verbatim. Among the many records we listened to were four of McCoy Tyner’s records: The Real McCoy, Extensions, Supertrios and Together. In retrospect, what I appreciated most about Robert was that he understood that McCoy Tyner’s playing was not simply or exclusively a result of playing with John Coltrane, as so many critics too easily assert. It certainly may have been the primary reason for his lightning speed development, but it was brewing before. Although I learned that so much of McCoy’s language was shaped by the pentatonic scale, it would be way too simple, and inaccurate, to stop there. This was a language that is much too complicated to break down and simplify in Euro terms. For starters, no one can or will be able to accurately describe feel. There’s a feel to McCoy Tyner’s playing that is very unlike any other pianist of his era, before or after. The urgency of his eighth notes are emotionally gripping. For the bulk of McCoy Tyner’s career, I find his pulse to be right in the middle of the beat. Often times, he could push, but at his most powerful, it was dead center. As far as his piano sound, the only word I can use is full. Big is accurate, too, but I prefer full. All colors of the spectrum are present. It’s African, it’s European, it’s Asian, it’s American, it’s West Philadelphian.
The first thing that attracted me most to McCoy Tyner’s playing wasn’t his vast and infinitely deep harmonic and melodic approach and feel, it was his articulation. I’ve become a stickler for articulation, musical or otherwise. My favorite musicians spoke loud and clear to me. Through my hangs with Robert, in shaping my own language, McCoy Tyner, Freddie Hubbard and Joe Henderson became my mighty three primary influences. Why? They articulated. They absolutely meant what they played. McCoy Tyner, on the other hand, (and frankly, most piano players, as a result of their left hand, thanks to McCoy) could often make any note sound good, whether or not the notes they played were in the scale of the chord. I started to devour not only the albums of the classic John Coltrane Quartet, but I was learning just as much from McCoy Tyner’s solo albums. They were lessons unto themselves.
For many years, Penn’s Landing had an outstanding jazz series. In four consecutive weeks in the summer of 1987, check this out, they presented Freddie Hubbard’s Quintet (with Ralph Moore, Larry Willis, Michael Formanek and Carl Allen), Bobby Hutcherson’s Quartet (with John Hicks, Ray Drummond and Tony Reedus), Sonny Rollins (with Jerome Harris, Mark Soskin, Bob Cranshaw and Tommy Campbell) and McCoy Tyner’s Trio with Avery Sharpe and Louis Hayes. I, along with Robert, Byron, Joey DeFrancesco, Antonio Parker and other members of my high school crew were at every one of these gigs. When we saw McCoy Tyner, I was awaiting to be blown away. What I remember most from his performance that day is when they played John Coltrane’s anthem “Moment’s Notice”, at one point during McCoy’s solo, Sharpe and Hayes laid out and let McCoy go for himself. The music that came from out of that piano was indescribable. I remember at one point Joey laughing from shock and amazement. He shouted, “WHOA!!!” My sentiments exactly. For the rest of my high school years, I diligently practiced songs from every McCoy Tyner album I could get my hands on. If I ever had a chance to play with him, I’d be ready.
That would be my only time seeing McCoy Tyner in Philly. That was all I needed, as two years later, I would move to New York and see him often at Sweet Basil, where he was a regular. Sometimes with his trio, sometimes playing solo piano.
In 1991, I received a major gift from another one of my beloved big brothers, Wynton Marsalis. As Jazz at Lincoln Center was in its infancy, they planned a John Coltrane tribute concert. On this concert would be Wynton’s sextet and other musicians including McCoy Tyner, Joe Henderson, Roy Haynes and Billy Higgins. As they planned the groupings, I saw that I would play in a quartet with McCoy Tyner, Joe Henderson and Roy Haynes. I was stunned. Absolutely stunned. I still hadn’t met Mr. Tyner or Mr. Haynes yet. I’d certainly seen them, but hadn’t yet met them. This was the heaviest of heavy moments for a 19-year-old. I would play in that quartet as well as join Wynton’s group as a second bassist, along with Reginald Veal and drum legend, Billy Higgins. I had already worked with Billy and Joe Henderson before, so I stuck close to them during rehearsals, which took place at Juilliard, where technically, I should have still been a student starting my junior year. There was no school better than this, however.
When McCoy Tyner showed up, I was numb. He was a big, solid man. Physically imposing, but so quiet and peaceful. Mr. Haynes, of course, was just as effervescent as always. Carried himself like a rock star, even dressing the part. Still does. Smiling, talkative, dropping lots of funny one-liners. One of the songs we played was Coltrane’s “Dear Lord”. I was so relieved to see that this great man, McCoy Tyner, was actually human. He didn’t remember it. He said, “Anybody got a lead sheet?” There wasn’t one, but there was a portable CD player handy. (Remember those?) Someone had a CD of Coltrane’s “Transition” handy. McCoy took the CD Walkman, went to the piano and it all started to come back to him. Within minutes, I was rehearsing “Dear Lord” with McCoy, Joe and Roy Haynes. (I’m getting chills remembering this) We rehearsed for a couple of hours, and I have to say, I don’t think I said one word to McCoy Tyner. I was way too nervous. Roy Haynes, on the other hand, we bonded quickly. (That’s another blog. 😊) During the rehearsal, both Joe Henderson and Billy Higgins (especially Billy) would say things like, “How about that young boy on bass, McCoy? That’s your homie.” McCoy, quite simply would say, “Haha, yeah.” I guess that was good. I have some great photos from that gig. We played songs like Dear Lord, Transition, Impressions and more.
I’m assuming that sometime during those couple of days together, not only did I make an impression, but I must have talked to him and gave him my phone number, because the following year, he called me directly to play with him at Lincoln Center. This time, JALC would celebrate the music of McCoy Tyner. The show was called, take a guess, “The Real McCoy”. This was a pinch-me moment. Check out this band: McCoy, Bobby Hutcherson, Gary Bartz, George Coleman, Al Foster and Sammy Figueroa. Wow. I still have a DAT (remember those?) of the performance and a cassette of rehearsal. That time, I wasn’t as nervous. I knew just about everyone on the gig, so I wasn’t as scared. I now had an official working relationship with the one and only McCoy Tyner. That gig was awesome. As a salute to our West Philly roots, one of the songs we played that night was May Street, a song he originally recorded on his 1968 album Time For Tyner. It was named after the street he was raised on in our old West Philly neighborhood.
The following year, 1994, I had the wonderful opportunity to record with him for the first time. Todd Barkan produced and organized the album “Prelude and Sonata” with a band consisting of my brothers Antonio Hart, Joshua Redman and Marvin “Smitty” Smith. It was basically a “McCoy Meets The Young Lions” concept, which was popular at that time with many producers. I have great photos of that session.
I’ve had a lot of cool nicknames, but almost everyone who knows me refers to me by my last name. Ray Brown and George Coleman call(ed) me “Mac”, Grady Tate called me “Boom Boom”, Benny Green calls me “Captain Hook”, a few call me – in the spirit of Snoop Dogg – “McBrizzle” or “McBreezy”, but McCoy Tyner saw me one day and shouted, “HOMES!” That nickname stuck. We referred to each other as that for the rest of his life. (Though I’m sure he called most musicians from Philly “Homes” 😊)
After recording with him again in 1998 on his Verve Records Burt Bacharach tribute album, I had one of the most memorable moments of my life.
In 1999, The Clef Club in Philadelphia threw a huge gala. They invited me, Stanley Clarke, Mickey Roker, John Blake, McCoy and many others to perform. Since McCoy and I were the only ones coming from New York, McCoy offered me a ride. He called and asked how I planned on getting to Philly. I told him I would probably rent a car. He said, “No, I’ll swing by your apartment and get you.” McCoy often traveled with a personal driver in a limo. This was no different. I was going to be in a limo with McCoy Tyner for two hours. Was this a moment or what? When he got to my apartment, I told the doormen, “You know who’s in there, man? A friggin’ living legend!” For whatever reasons, there was a police motorcade on the New Jersey Turnpike, so we didn’t drive more than 40 MPH the whole way. Our two hour drive turned into an almost four-hour drive! I had one-on-one time with McCoy Tyner for almost four hours. I was dumbfounded. As I mentioned, he was a man of few words, so I didn’t want to bug him, but I also didn’t want to blow this opportunity to pick his brain about music. He didn’t want to talk much about music, mostly family and his upbringing in Philly. Ultimately, I feel like I didn’t ask him many meaningful questions, as I wanted to respect his space, but it was a moment I’ll never forget. At some point, the trip was moving so slowly, we were afraid we’d miss the beginning of the gig. I then defaulted into his road manager, which I loved. I was on the phone with the Clef Club giving them our ETA and figuring out our path to the stage. The gig was so wonderful, as it meant the world to me to share the stage with him in our hometown. I stayed with my family that night, but I often wonder if I would have gotten more out of him (and me) had we also shared a ride back to New York.
Earlier that same year, Joshua Redman, Brian Blade and I played a week with him at Yoshi’s in Oakland, where McCoy did an annual two-week January residency for many years. It was magical. We played the entire “The Real McCoy” album each night. I have a cassette of one of those nights, also.
Speaking of that Blue Note classic “The Real McCoy”, it made me think of McCoy Tyner, the composer. It occurred to me that many haven’t quite given their due diligence to that side of McCoy’s legend. Everyone knows all of the songs from “The Real McCoy”, but it has surprised me how many (especially musicians) don’t know songs like Reaching Fourth, Contemporary Focus, May Street, Nubia, The High Priest, African Village, Vision, Peresina, Sahara, Song For The New World, Inner Glimpse, Forbidden Land, The Greeting, Fly With The Wind, and Walk Spirt, Talk Spirit. This is but a very small sample of McCoy Tyner’s compositional output. With this, I’ve found that the Coltrane worship, which is undoubtedly justified, has inhibited the jazz intelligentsia from seeing McCoy Tyner’s music as nothing more than “Coltrane Influenced” or “Indian or Middle Eastern Influenced”, which, to me, is a sideways way of still saying “Coltrane Influenced”. That, is not fully accurate. For example, one of the attributes of Thelonious Monk’s music is that you don’t need to hear Monk playing it to know it’s his song. His style and personality are so deeply ingrained in his music, you can tell it’s a Monk tune no matter who’s playing it. For my money, McCoy Tyner’s music is the same. Go play a song like Inner Glimpse. There’s absolutely no one else you could think of except McCoy Tyner. Play Song For The New World, Atlantis, Celestial Chant or Ebony Queen. The DNA of those songs are so strong, no matter how creative you get, many of his tunes demand that you play them almost exactly like him.
As the naughts began, I was thrilled to play with him at Yoshi’s a few times – in 2003 in a trio with Lewis Nash (see my FB tribute), which was probably the height of my musical experiences with him, and again the following year in a trio with Jeff “Tain” Watts. Tain, Joe Lovano and I made a live recording with him for a New Year’s Eve run at Yoshi’s in 2006, also. Lewis Nash, Terence Blanchard, Gary Bartz and I also got to record with him in 2004 on the album “Illuminations”, which also won a Grammy. He even recorded one of my original songs that I composed for the session, “West Philly Tone Poem”. To have such a fruitful musical relationship with a man I loved so much meant the world to me.
Another smoking gig we did in 2004 was at the Newport Jazz Festival in an all-star quintet with Michael Brecker (another homie), Ravi Coltrane and Roy Haynes. That gig is on YouTube.
Around 2006, Melissa and I went to see McCoy at the Blue Note. He was playing in a sextet with Terell Stafford, Gary Bartz, Ravi Coltrane, Charnett Moffett and Eric Gravatt (yet another homie). After they finished the first set, I hung out with the guys on the break. Terell pulled me aside and said, “You should go see McCoy.” He said it with almost a tone of concern. I asked if everything was ok. He said, “You should just go see him.” I knocked on his dressing room door and slowly opened it. Privacy and a peaceful intermission simply just doesn’t exist in most jazz club dressing rooms, so I certainly didn’t want to add to the anticipated crowd, but Terell made this sound important. As I slowly walked in, I could see that there wasn’t anyone there but him. He was just sitting there on the couch, quiet as a mouse. He looked up and said, “Hey, Homes!” I seem to remember Lewis Nash was with me, also. We sat down and just hung with him. He seemed a bit melancholy. He wasn’t unpleasant, just a shade down. Whatever was going on, it was great that Nash and I were able to lift his spirits a bit. He went back on stage for the second set and killed it – just as he did the first set.
Unknowingly, my last time playing with McCoy Tyner came later that year as Joe Lovano, Jeff “Tain” Watts and myself played a New Year’s eve engagement with him at Yoshi‘s. It was to be recorded for his first release on his new label., Half Note Records. It was such a tremendously joyous week as people such as Angela Davis and Bobby and Rosemary Hutcherson came and hung out at various points during the week. Just a couple of days before our run started, James Brown passed away on Christmas Day. I was on standby, as I knew I would have to fly back to New York for his funeral, which was to be held at the Apollo Theater. When I got word that his funeral would be held right smack in the middle of the week, I knew I had to tell McCoy. Before I even finished telling him what the deal was, McCoy stopped me and said, “Homes, I know that was your main man. You go to the funeral. I’ll get somebody to cover for you. Just get there and back safely.” That Thursday morning, I got on a plane, flew to New York, went straight to the Apollo, headed back to Oakland on Friday morning and was back onstage with the cats on Friday night. Was I fried? Did it matter? Both things had to be done, no matter the cost. Pay tribute to a deceased legend and get back to finish the gig with a living legend.
Perhaps the sweetest moment I shared with McCoy in his final years came in 2012 when his quartet played in South Orange, NJ at SOPAC (South Orange Performing Arts Center). By this time, it was clear that his health had deteriorated. He was quite detached, not introducing the band or making any announcements to the audience. After the show, I went backstage to say hello. Instead of knocking on his dressing room door, I tried an experiment. As I walked down the hallway, I just shouted at the top of my lungs, “HOMES!” From behind his door I heard a happy “HEY!!!!” I was so happy. McCoy came out of his room smiling so wide. We had a nice conversation for about ten minutes. He said to Melissa, “You know this is my Homes! This is West Philly right here!”
After that night, I saw McCoy two more times – in 2014 when the Jazz Museum in Harlem gave him a Lifetime Achievement Award and in 2017 when Jazz House Kids presented him with the same award. Both times, he was surrounded by family as he was in a fragile state, so we didn’t really get to hang, but I was so happy to see him.
In closing, I can only say how fortunate I was to spend quality time on and off stage with an American icon who was one of the most important, most influential musicians in the world. I urge all critics to stop simply calling him “John Coltrane’s pianist.” Yes, he definitely was that, but he was so much more than that. In describing Miles Davis, nobody ever leads with “Charlie Parker’s trumpet player.” Nobody ever leads a Herbie Hancock biography with “Miles Davis’s pianist.” They definitely say that much later in the story, but it’s not the knee-jerk, over-simplistic lead in. McCoy Tyner was a great pianist and composer who created new piano language, led an enormous number of great bands, mentoring many young musicians along the way, the same way John Coltrane mentored him. Lead off with that.
Rest In Peace, Homes. We will miss you so.